To Bury Or To Burn?
When I see a corpse, I want to bury it, not eat it.
Grandma the cat was twenty years old when she died on the morning of the winter solstice. We made an altar in the house and placed her body on it surrounded by flowers, candles and incense. Along with the other cats, we spent a day in front of her body, praying and remembering our love for her. On the second day we went outside to look for a suitable place to dig a grave. The ground was cold and frozen and it was hard to make much of a dent with the shovel. David suggested, “Why don’t we make a funeral pyre and cremate her body?” I envisioned myself sitting by that fire seeing her small black and white body burning in the flames—smelling like meat cooking. “No, cremation is out of the question, we have to bury her.”
That incident made me realize something about how different cultures deal with their dead and how that was related to how those cultures viewed and treated animals. Members of the three religions founded by Abraham—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—all adhere to the practice of burying their dead, unlike Hindus who cremate the body shortly after death. Meat eating (the eating of cooked corpses) is as central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam as vegetarianism is to Hinduism—interesting. I was raised as a meat-eating Christian, and the smell of cooking flesh is engrained in my consciousness as the smell of dinner—not as the smell that I associate with the funeral of a friend or family member. The repulsion we feel at the smell of burning human flesh stems from its similarity to the smell of cooked meat, which must be viewed as soulless in order for us to eat it with guiltless justification. We do, in fact, have cremation in the West, but unlike in places like India where cremation is performed outside in public view, in the West the body is taken away and put in a sealed, high temperature oven at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit for about 4 hours. To alleviate any risk of repugnance, the only thing that family and friends see are the clean, odorless ashes that remain.
The story of Abraham is found both in the Bible and the Quran, and it tells of how God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. But just as he was about to place his son on the fire, an angel appeared to say, “You have proved your faith and your fear of God; for that He is happy with you, so unbind your son and instead, put a lamb on the fire.” Ritualized sacrifice of animals—killing them and burning their bodies and then distributing the meat all in the name of God—formed the foundation of the three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It also formed the political core and the establishment of urbanization—a sedentary way of life deeply rooted in a practice of enslaving animals, exploiting animals, buying and selling animals and eating animals, which demanded that animals be viewed as soulless objects whose only purpose was to be used by human beings.
Prior to the great agricultural explosion, which gave birth to capitalism and urbanization and pretty much the world as we know it today, human beings lived wild with other wild animals and the natural wild environment. At that time, human beings felt connected and as kindred spirits with all of nature. But when we started to enslave (domesticate) other animal beings, we had to disconnect from them, as well as deny our connection to the whole of nature. Elaborate rituals were employed to accomplish this division and nullify guilt. Ritualized killing was part of this process. Domesticated animals were brought to a temple to be offered to God, killed by priests while reciting incantations, put on a fire, cooked and then either given back to the person for a fee or the meat was sold and distributed to others. In time as human population increased, so did the herds of domesticated animals, and cities grew larger, as did temples and political power. Religious temples became more and more like commercial slaughterhouses. Two thousand years ago, ancient Jerusalem was known as the “red city,” not because of how the beautiful sunsets colorfully reflected on the walled fortress surrounding the city, but because of the crimson blood that overflowed the gutter troughs running out of the main temple—the by-product of the many animal sacrifices that were going on. All of the three religions of Abraham uphold a speciesist view, which looks upon animals as inferior to humans, so in those religions cremation is not acceptable because burning is for animals, not humans.
Vegetarianism was not always a central feature of Hinduism. The ritualized killing of animals played a big part in early Vedic culture. The Brahmin priests did the job of animal sacrifice, and originally only Brahmins were allowed to eat meat. After the religious reforms brought about by Jainism and Buddhism, Hinduism became primarily a religion that upheld the virtue of ahimsa and along with it, the practice of vegetarianism. In turn, cremation became the popular method used to dispose of human corpses among the vegetarian Hindus, Jains and Buddhists.
When we begin to look deeply into the rituals of our culture, including funeral ceremonies, we may uncover the roots of many violent practices that have been ingrained and unquestioned in our way of life, and we may come to realize that many of these practices have been learned. The good news is that when we recognize the origins of certain behaviors, we realize that they aren’t necessarily natural or hard wired into us, and with that we are reminded that when something is learned it can be unlearned. We can dismantle the old ways of our present animal slave-based culture and create a new way of living. We can rise like the phoenix from the ashes of the sacrificial fire and fly to greater heights than have even yet been imagined.
The insight for the essay came from my experience with the death of Grandma, the cat as I expressed in the first paragraph. When I started writing the essay I kept hearing in my head Bob Dylan’s song Highway 61 as well as a poem I had written several years ago about the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. So I include those here for you.
Excerpt from Bob Dylan’s song Highway 61:
“…God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son,” Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on” God say, “No,” Abe say, “What?” God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but the next time you see me comin’ you better run.” Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?” God says, “Out on Highway 61” –Bob Dylan
A poem of mine:
What did he do to make them so mad?
What did he do to make them so mad
that they had to nail him to a cross for being so bad!
What was his crime against the state
Which moved them all to such hate?
Have you seen a movie or read a book
That tells you how he went too far—
The Passion, The Last Temptation, The Super Star?
But what was it that he did,
That they would fear their own annihilation
From his tempestuous tantrum tempting temptation?
I have seen it
In this Essene
It is no watered down story of a victim’s distress
Or of a pilgrim’s quest
It is the story of an activist—
I and my father are one
There is no difference between god and the creation
What you do to one you do to the whole
The story’s old been told and told
Jerusalem at the time
Taxes had to be paid
Sacrifices had to be made
Money had to be changed
This Israel, see it if you will
The great Temple on the Hill
Even then the walls did wail
With the lust for money
Tainted with the cries of the kill
Gentle morning doves,
Baby goats, and sheep
No fruits, no flowers accepted here
Only a bloody corpse will do
Life desecrated for a holy price
The law said you had to pay in blood
And buy an animal for the sacrifice
To get the temple priests to kill your feast
You must pay in Holy-City currency
No foreign coins or bills accepted
Money was exchanged, animals
Bought and then brought up the hill
Wailing to the temple door
Inside their throats were cut
Canals flowing with innocent blood
Jerusalem the city of the red flood
Rivers and tributaries, gutters of gore
Flow from the famous Temple of Lore
I have seen it
In this Essene
A vegetarian honoring life
As the way to the Divine
Thou shalt not kill no man no ram
No more killing no need to
The temple is within you
Do not defile it with death
Those who wield the sword
shall perish by the sword
Love thy neighbor as thyself
But even with his words thus spoke
there was much money to be made
From the sale of these gentle folk
The economy of the society has grown
Profited from their exploitation and pain
The Nazarene turned the tables and said enough!
Violence only brings more of the same
You cannot plant an olive seed and
Expect to harvest wheat
To know become like the one you seek
So He upset their plans
Cut the tethering ropes
Opened the cages while
They watched their profits fly
Their anger rose their voices high
“We are the chosen,
Killing is the sanctioned lawful way,&n
Who are you to say?”
So he stood there mute and frozen
And they took him away
And frozen he is to this day
This animal activist
Liberator of the oppressed
But alive is he today inside each one of us who cares
He is the sacred heart of the Passion
And the best passion, as everybody knows,
Everlasting life comes to those who allow it to flow.
Notes to the Poem: Most of us know that there was a historical Jesus who was crucified and died on a cross, but most of us don’t know why he was put to death. In this poem I am offering a glimpse into the historical time and place in which Jesus lived to find some clues. We do know that he became angry and turned over some tables outside the Jewish Temple. Why did he do that? What were those tables set up for? David and I visited the sacred sites in Jerusalem and from the research and experience gained from that visit, I came to understand something of the huge status, politically and commercially that the ritualized killing of animals had in the Jewish Religion. The large Temple in Jerusalem operated pretty much as a slaughter-house. Thousands of animals were killed routinely by the temple priests, under the auspices of presenting an offering to God to insure God’s favor. Outside of the temple were people selling animals, which you could buy and then take to the temple priest to make your sacrifice. In this poem I present Jesus as a man of peace whose message of compassion and love was meant to be extended to all of creation including non-human animal people, as well as an anarchist who rejected the political power structure based on a slave culture. It was his message of love thy neighbor as thyself, which was threatening to the economic, religious and political establishment of the day and is what ultimately got him nailed to the cross. He was a yogi/animal rights activist committed to liberation.
SOME IDEAS FOR HOW TO TAKE THIS FOCUS INTO THE CLASSROOM IN PRACTICAL WAYS
- Emphasizing asanas that are forms of animals which have been traditionally used for sacrifice: cow, horse, camel, rabbit, pigeon and other birds—often what are now commonly referred to as “farm animals”—all domesticated animals. Wild animals are not traditionally used for religious sacrifice
- Viewing the entire asana practice as a rite that brings us closer to God without the need to harm others
- In shavasana, considering/contemplating what should be done with your body when it is a corpse and why.
- Agni sara practice for the earth and fire elements.
- Put an emphasis on twisting asanas–but then of course the teacher has to talk about the connections to the manipura chakra (which twisting focuses on) and how that relates to power, exploitation and domination of animals and how through the practice of twists this chakra can be purified and those negative tendencies dissolved. People hurt others because they feel a lack of self-confidence. This is really the underlying motivation for eating meat. The motivation being largely unconscious because the enslavement, raising, slaughtering and eating of animals has become a cultural/religious habit that is so deeply ingrained and unquestioned it has come to be regarded as normal and so it has slipped back—submerged into a dark place of unconsciousness. As with many aspects of the shadow side, when a bit of awareness emerges it can be embraced and with that justified. So one must be ruthless and not be afraid to acknowledge old habits and the ignorance and guilt that justified them. Yes go ahead and acknowledge the shadow but have the courage to step out of the guilty shadow, and into the sun, transformed into a being of light freed from the shackles of cruel cultural conformity.
- Teachers could make the point that even asana practice can become like a ritual that is done unconsciously or without investigation. So then they could have the students do a portion of class on the floor without a mat, or every asana using the wall somehow, or doing certain asanas or sequences fully propped even if the student does not really need the props, meditation with eyes open or walking meditation, or even just doing the whole class facing the back of the room instead of the windows or the center, etc. – there are any number of ways to bring a heightened level of awareness into the practice.
These sutras could work well:
vasamsi jirnani yatha vihaya / navani grhnati naro ‘parani
tatha sharirani vihaya jirnany / anyani samyati navani dehi (BG II.22)
Just as old clothes are cast off and new ones taken, the soul leaves the body after death to take a new one.
maitri-adisu balani (PYS III.24)
Through friendliness, kindness and compassion, strength comes
te samadhav upasarga vyutthane siddhaya (PYS III.38)
By giving up the love of power, you attain the power of love
So many cultural rites and customs are either designed to or have the effect of securing or maintaining power for someone and we often don’t bother to look at that (or if we do, we’re branded as weird or “counter-culture”)—like most of all eating customs, marriage, our political, election and economic policies and customs, and probably many more.
There are many stories from the Bible and Quran where killing animals is deemed good and righteous. Besides the Abraham/Isaac story there is of course the earlier “Cain and Abel story.” Adam and Eve have two sons, Abel who is a shepherd, a herder of goats and sheep and Cain, a gardener who grows vegetables. Adam informs them that they must make a sacrifice to God in order to win favor with Him. Abel’s sacrifice is a bloody one—one of his sheep, bound, throat slit and placed to roast on a burning pyre. Cain harvests an abundant variety of vegetables from his garden and places them on his outdoor altar as an offering to God. God speaks to father Adam and tells him how delighted he is with Abel’s offering of lamb chops and how unhappy he is with Cain’s vegetarian platter. Cain feels rejected, becomes depressed, succumbs to a jealous rage and kills his “innocent” brother.
I think, to us yogis stories like this appear pretty transparent. We aren’t easily duped. Nonetheless we remember being taught those stories as children and realize that for many people those stories go unquestioned even by adults. Stories like these can offer us insight into why animal sacrifice and meat eating became justified and so important to the development of culture and the unquestioned beliefs of many religions. These stories are presented as coming before religion and culture but of course one can’t help assuming that the Bible and Quran stories evolved along with the culture, and as a justification for bloody murderous sacrificial rites, meat-eating and exploitation of defenseless enslaved animals.
It is my feeling that the reason that among Christians, Jews and Moslems, cremation is not acceptable, is because in those religions burning is for animals, not humans.
All of the 3 religions of Abraham uphold a speciesist view, which looks upon animals as inferior to humans, so putting an animal’s body in fire, whether as a religious sacrifice or as cooking meat for dinner is viewed as totally acceptable. But a human body should not be treated the same as an animal. For example: To many Jews there is a horrific reaction to the idea of cremation because of the holocaust where Nazis at the death camps cremated many Jews. The Nazis viewed the Jews as no better than animals and to burn an animal’s body was certainly acceptable, so the Nazis used cremation as a desecration.
Some Religious views in regard to Cremation:
Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all against cremation because it is believed that the body is sacred and cremation is an act of desecration. It is believed that the body and soul will eventually be reunited and cremation insures that no resurrection of the body can be possible.
Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism mandate cremation. In these religions the body is seen as a vehicle for the soul, and at the time of death the soul leaves the body; destroying the corpse induces detachment.
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